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President Moon cozies up to China to the chagrin of Japan

South Korean leader brings Nanjing, 'comfort women' back into focus

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, second from right, lays a wreath during a ceremony in Chongqing on Dec. 16.   © Kyodo

CHONGQING -- Before South Korean President Moon Jae-in wrapped up his visit to China on Saturday, he highlighted the affinity that the two neighbors have historically harbored for each other.

He was trying to woo his hosts. But by emphasizing Japan's past aggression toward the two countries and his preference for a soft approach in dealing with North Korea, Moon might have complicated impending talks between Seoul and Tokyo.

On Saturday, the South Korean leader paid a visit to the former office of Korea's provisional government in Chongqing, which served as the center for Koreans' efforts to win back their independence.

Japan colonized Korea in 1910. Its rule over the peninsula did not end until its World War II surrender.

Speaking in front of descendants of independence activists, Moon revealed a plan to set up a memorial hall for them in 2019, when South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea, will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its foundation.

Moon later met with Chen Min'er, secretary of the Chinese Communist Party's Chongqing committee, and agreed to resume a suspended project to restore the former general headquarters of the independence army of Korea in the city.

In Beijing, Moon expressed his condolences to the victims of the Nanjing Massacre, offering "deep empathy" and sending South Korea's ambassador to the memorial ceremony.

Symbolically, Moon arrived in China on Wednesday, the 80th anniversary of Imperial Japanese troops' entry into Nanjing.

In Thursday's regular press conference in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the ministry "appreciate[s] the friendship President Moon Jae-in showed to the Chinese people."

"China and the ROK," Lu said, "have worked in unity and helped each other in resisting the aggression of Japanese colonialism.

"China stands ready to work with the ROK to safeguard the truth of history, fulfill our common responsibility and mission and jointly uphold regional peace and stability."

Closer cooperation between Beijing and Seoul in dealing with their shared history could unnerve Japan, potentially affecting diplomatic plans between Tokyo and Seoul going forward.

These plans include a summit among the leaders of China, South Korea and Japan that the Japanese government is trying to organize. It could also affect South Korea's efforts to improve relations with Japan, including an invitation for Japanese Prime Minister Shizo Abe to attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February. Another plan that could be affected has the two countries using the 20th anniversary of the joint-declaration between the two countries to improve ties. The anniversary takes place next October.

Moon has agreed with Japan and the U.S. to use "maximum pressure" to discourage Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs. But he and Chinese President Xi Jinping also agreed to avoid war on the Korean Peninsula and to seek a solution to the North Korea issue through dialogue. The principles that Moon and Xi agreed to do not mention applying pressure or sanctions.

Also of concern to Japan is this month's release of a South Korean report on an ongoing review of a 2015 deal under which South Korea and Japan agreed to resolve "finally and irreversibly" the decades-old issue of Korean "comfort women," a euphemism that refers to women in wartime brothels frequented by Japanese troops.

The report is expected to point out shortcomings of the deal. As such, it could impact South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha's visit to Japan. During the visit, the two countries are to confirm their cooperation in dealing with North Korea.

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